Banaras

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Pristine as the age-old traditions and contemporary as the new world order – if ever there was a perfect blend of two ends of the spectrum, it is here. Varanasi is, as commonly said – older than history, older than tradition, older than legends and looks twice as old as all of them put together. This being the poetic abstract of the spirit of a culture, an ideology and a set of people bound by it, takes its share of creative liberty, yet isn’t far from truth. A city located in modern times and geography by relativity, yet caught in a time warp of its own, Varanasi, or Banaras as its people call it affectionately – is a beautiful bundle of paradoxes, a curious collection of contradictions and a delicious design of dichotomy – of religion and spirituality, of advances and soul-searches, of faith and rationality, of Gods and humanity. As a result, what transpires is a beautiful bonhomie of various colors of chaos, bound together by as aspiration towards a common purpose – some call it salvation, some moksha, some nirvana, and some simply love.

The holy river defines, guards, purifies and herself becomes the city itself – Ganga is Benaras and Benaras is Ganga. There are many a cities that the mighty river has given birth to, by purifying and fertilizing the soils around it and inviting the native dwellers to reside by its side and develop their settlements, but none of them share a connection deeper than what links the soul of this city to the river. The eighty ghats (places for religious activities along the river side in form of stairs) that form the lifeline of the city may be the only land pieces which actually touch the holy Ganges, but the soul of every resident is drenched by the pious water, and as they reverently call her, Ganga Maiya (Mother Ganges) remains the most essential part of the people’s life and practices. The city that is sprawling now beyond its borders and stretching its feet to accommodate the growing influx of people from all over, is also at the same time striving to preserve the richness of its ancient form, and that is something difficult to take away from it. So strong are the footprints of mythology and history of world civilization here, with the ever lasting impressions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam among other faiths, that it is impossible not to feel the presence if you take a casual stroll along one of the lanes in the city. From the tales of Lord Shiva’s and Goddess Parvati’s union to the destruction of the 80 devils or asuras on the ghats; from being Shiva’s favorite place to place where Gautam Buddha first taught the dharma; from witnessing the attacks on its heritage by invaders to preserving the relics of even the faiths that damaged it, along the original symbols of its faith – this city has the tales of past written all over it so clearly that it always has and will keep inspiring the artists to express its story, and often finding their own stories in it, expressing it in most beautiful forms. No wonder then that the city has been the hosts to some of the most revered musicians, writers, dancers and men of spirituality in recent history. A city which inspires others to find themselves however, is not easy to find its own way. Varanasi is not easy – with its small lanes that try to fit the wisdom and history of centuries within them, it is easy to lose your paths here. With a temple on each corner, and lanes and settlements named after Gods, and often vice versa, it is often disorienting to adjust to the places here. With humans, cows and the river cohabiting a limited space, which also is trying to adapt to the progress in the worldly sense, it often screams of a chaos. But what meaning does peace hold without experiencing chaos? Who has even found his way without choosing some wrong paths first? And there was no one who attended salvation before unlearning all that was assumed true. Therein lies the soul of Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi.

Welcome to Varanasi, it is a world where you can lose yourself, physically and metaphorically, to the endless trips of all pleasures of life – sight, food, pleasure, love, lust, pain, injury, salvation and realization, that the answers lie within us. If a city from 11th century B.C. with its 2000 odd temples and the ghats that date to the period as old as humanity can cohabit its relics along with developing its new temples of modern times – of education, entertainment and employment, there is nothing that stops us from being what we want to be, without losing what we are.

Delhi, my friend

It’s a belief I have held for long now – cities are like people. With both, you tend to lose objectivity in your feelings and start viewing them through the lenses of experiences you have had and memories you created with them. More often than not, it starts with a sense of uncomfortable unfamiliarity, progresses with moments of intense dislike and regret and gradually with time you begin to know them, accept them with all their flaws and eventually develop a relationship which is deeper than what objectivity can perceive. So, if Varanasi has been that family member for me which I have just known to love always in that cocooned sense of comfort and ownership, Pilani and Jamshedpur have been those growing up companions with whom I grew up, learnt about what it means to grow up and come out of that protective shell.

Delhi, on the other hand, over a period of time (3 years, and more) has become like that close friend, who you might find many flaws with, constantly crib about yet develop a deep sense of affection and a sense of belonging. From the tall towers of Noida – Ghaziabad, to the affable and loud neighborhood of Patel Nagar, to the superficial posh of the South Delhi to the glitzy shine of the Millennium city Gurgaon with a dark underbelly, all of them seem familiar now. Few years back, it was this big halt on the way to my college and my eyes would never get tired of staring at the tall buildings, wide roads, curvy flyovers and the metro in construction. Even today, the magic remains intact – only with higher intensity and with a mixture of many other emotions. The wide roads which would seem like the route to a different world altogether, today after 3000 kms of biking on them seem like my own companion who share the joy of the wind blowing on my face leaving the metropolis behind. The flyovers which teased me with their twists and curves and rise and fall take me along with them in their joyride. The metro which seemed to be digging a whole new world into the future now seems like a way of life, no more than taking a rickshaw back in the towns of hinterland. The pubs and bars with their edgy lights and sounds seemed alien now embrace me with all the warmth- mostly of the memories of good times. You don’t really belong to a city unless you know its ways, its lanes and roads and getting across it. The joy which I feel on covering the width and length of the NCR on 2 wheels is something which will always fill my heart with a warm feeling, and a belief that yes I know this city, I know its roads.

Delhi is not just another city, it is actually a combination of many of them, each with a different flavor of its own. Like a giant beast with many limbs, it goes on expanding ever and not always in dignified proportions, often out of sync with each other and resulting in case when it grows so big that one part does not know about the other. Noida and Ghaziabad – with its mixed contours of UP and sprinkling of the metropolis, offer a comfort the kind of which you get from meeting a person from your hometown in a new place. Greater Noida is all that, only in a much more beautiful, planned and evolved way, mostly due to lack of the population. The connecting link – The Expressway will always remain the first love of my bike, and the memories we share their together will be precious. Gurgaon, (no, not Gurgram) a living metaphor of the classic Indian metro planning (i.e. a disaster) is a different breed altogether – with its super posh and rich skyline, drinking addas and of course that place called Cyber Hub. Delhi, of course the center of it all (literally and figuratively) remains that heady cocktail of political storms, bits of history round every corner and the origin of all things big in the country. Move beyond the borders to the interior and you find a city of civilization in process and in construction co-existing together

And that is something which is common to all part of this monster called the National Capital Region – construction. As if the capital wants to stand as a metaphor to the ever growing dreams of the Indian populace, it is since time immemorial (at least in my life time) has always been a work in progress. Large stretches of lands in Noida and Gurgaon offer a scenic (in a weird way) views of towers getting erected one floor above the other, one tower behind the other. Before the roads and people kick in, there is this whole another world of slums of the construction workers and their families which inhabit it, and a few years later the same places are inhabited by the people who occupy the other end of the divide of the society. Some areas just seem perpetually under construction, with the ever changing demographics of the NCR. As if along with my personal growth, the mega city also grows, and both of us still struggling to identify if this is the point to stop, or if all went right.

It seems alright though, both the city and the time spent here. The single required and sufficient evidence for that is the pain that I feel as I move on, and the wonderful people and memories I share with them, and the roads, the metro, the malls, flyovers and all things which shape and define the city. This city has given me a lot – in material, emotional and financial all terms, but as I leave, I leave a part of my soul behind. A part which will always care about the status of that proposed tram network in Chandni Chowk, the trial runs of the Jama Masjid metro line, the launch of new luxury townships in Sohna Road, the Noida-Greater Noida Metro line, the taxi-pods of Manesar-Gurgaon, the happy hours at CP, the new stores and skiing zone in the Mall of India and the pollution levels in the air. Even though I might live somewhere else, love someplace else, and objectively find some other place better, the time spent here and my relationship is with Delhi will remain the same. For all your flaws, Delhi you have been a great friend, and a friend for lifetime for sure. Until we meet next, keep growing!

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Country and the Countryside : Europe Diaries 3

14th September, 1030 hrs.

Last station was called Ameins, and the train is breezing through the beautiful fields, forests and villages. With the comfortable seats, footrest and the wide window pane, the views outside seem like a beautiful painting. Even the villages have a self-assured air of perfection, with ordered houses in similar color and shape, small but clean and well-built roads and dedicated farm areas, with wind-mills in the background.

15th September, 1130 hrs.

The train is running on the French countryside, heading towards Spain, and it is difficult to keep the eyes off the wide window pane, such is the beauty of landscape and habitations. Vast green pastures of grass on shaped  land, cows grazing lazily on them, rivers with spotless clean water, fields with well-arranged patterns of crops, surrounded by tall trees on all sides- all giving the scene an imagery of having a windows wallpaper on the window pane, a series of them actually.  This is nature at its best. With some wonderful music, the journey seems even more ethereal, and you don’t want it to end ever.

‘…Manzil se behtar lagne lage hain ye raste…’

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The lines never seemed truer. On second thoughts though, it could be the obsession with perfection (or closeness to it) of the first world countries in everything they do – and most certainly in their outward appearances. The countryside is a glaring evidence. Despite supposedly being natural, there is no random wild outgrowth of trees or bushes, no abandoned or unfinished buildings or huts thrown in the wilderness. The ordered and finely shaped rows of plantations decorate the rising and falling earth. As Spain nears, the gradual and subtle changes in landscape and climate are unfailingly noticeable. The cows and pastures are being replaced by horses and bounded lands. The cold winds are being mellowed by the bright sun and warm breeze. The number of rivulets and canals is increasing and with a pleasant surprise, a vast indefinite water body just appeared – the Mediterranean Sea.

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A sense of satisfaction fills my heart as I see the fourth sea, after the three surrounding our own peninsula. Playing in its waters, of course remains to be done. The trees as well as grass move with the wind, as if showing you the direction.

..’Hua hai yun ki dil pighal gaye, hawaa me beh rahi hai zindagi, ye humse keh rahi hai zindagi, ab to, job hi ho so ho’…

Such is the effect this world has on you. Yes, you get bedazzled, wide-eyed in awe of everything. After some futile attempts, you finally let go of attempts to capture the beauty in your camera and let the eyes do their work with the soul serenading in the pleasures of sight. The station is called Port La Nouvelle. There is the sea on one side, visible in form of stretches of water and numerous canals passing though the city leading to it, on the other side. It is a delightful sight – the train moving along the sea, with waves making desperate attempts to reach the tracks. The waters vanish at places, making way for roads amidst land, trees, vegetation, windmills. A group of girls stands on the roadside waiting for perhaps a bus, while trying to control their flowing brown hair, white hat and colored skirts. Their skin glistens even more in the afternoon sun. I am tempted to sing ‘Senorita’ and see their reaction, but the train moves on. The station is called River Saltes. River, canals, sea everything can be seen around.

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Yes, Europe is THAT beautiful, more than what I had imagined it to be. It enchants you with every sight be it the country or the countryside. It became clear to me the first morning I stepped outside of my flat to a chilling cold air and some never seen before surroundings, comprising of wide pavement on both sides, an almost new looking road with a number of symbols painted, an unmanned traffic signal, and a long queue of cars on both sides of road as well, in a marked zone between the pavement and the driving space. I started to walk towards the college. All those perceptions I had of ‘foreign’ were coming back to me, and most were being proved right then and there. The roads are absolutely clean, and spotless at a first glance. Leave the roads, even the pavements are as clean as new. Though on observing closely I could see a number of cigarette butts thrown around on the sides of the roads. The queues of vehicles I realized were, in the parking spaces. They don’t need to have parking space in homes, as the roadsides are marked for parking cars. Despite it being a Monday morning, I could see very few people on the road, something which did not feel good to me. I had some confusion about the way to college and spotted a woman and went to her. As she saw me coming near, she smiled in the most polite manner, and greeted ‘Bonjour’. I replied, and as rehearsed, asked,’Parlez vouz anglias?’ she replied yes with more smiles, and then guided me with a lot of patience. I kept on walking, while my surrounding visuals kept me wide eyed. The houses were all of a similar height in a particular lane, and almost of same color and design with hut shaped roofs. It seemed they do not have a provision of front offset, i.e. leaving some open space in front of the home, as all the buildings – homes, shops, offices, schools, started right from the boundary itself, i.e. the end of pavement. The similarity in the houses was striking. The windows had, apart from the glass panes, those shop like shutters. I guess those are protection from the snow storms in the winter. Most buildings were complete, and even the incomplete or broken ones were not putting up an ugly show but were either covered gracefully with covers, or decorated with an attractive graffiti. But the one which attracted my attention the most, with a sudden feeling of joy and blessing was this one.

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There was a school on the way. There was a little crowd, but that would be unmatched by the crowd which we have at dropping and receiving times. None of the kids I saw wore a uniform, and most of them did not carry their school bags on shoulders but they had those pulling carriers with wheels. Many of them were coming on those skates and scooters, as they call them. They seem to be really popular here as a means of transport in the city. With the smooth road, and wide pavements I guess they really are helpful, across all  ages. The main city roads seems as wide as some of our much talked about expressways, with rows of greenery in between. There are signs such as ‘BUS’. ‘TAXI’ on the roads, and a pedestrian light at every signal, along with a crossing for the pedestrian and the cycle. I came across one, and as the light turned green, all the vehicles stopped, and I crossed the road with utmost ease. This reminded of our cities, where crossing the road would be such a mammoth task. At the next crossing, I saw the vehicles stopping at the green pedestrian light even though there was no pedestrian in sight. As the college neared, the number of people carrying bag on their shoulders increased.

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After I failed in my search for a water cooler (or heater, or whatever) in the college to quench my thirst, I asked for one, and was replied ‘It is drinkable everywhere!’ with a puzzled look. That also explained the lack of a water purifier in our home. Though drinking the tap water did feel a little awkward at first, and if the tap is in the college washroom, then even more. From the college, I continued my walk on the roads which lie ahead. There was a water body flowing by the side of the road, and I could not make out if it was natural or man-made. It looked beautiful though, and disappeared away from the road, turning into some dense forest growth next to the roads. I followed the canal (I decided it was one) and went in the forest like area. There was a small bridge over it, which was for pedestrians and cyclists (or bikers, as they call it). Across the bridge, it was almost an actual forest. Tall and dense trees, lush green grass all around, and what more, there were some monkeys as well, though they were all on a small island and some kind of barricading was done so that they could not jump off and trouble the people. I followed the canal and it led to a larger water body amidst woods and wilderness on one side, and an urban growth on the other. I found out later that both were in fact canals.

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15th September, 0100 hrs

We reached this station called Valence Ville at 10:20 pm, and the next train is at 7 in the morning. We had not given much thought about how to spend the night beforehand. The station was quiet and deserted, and had the usual air of sophistication and being well taken care of. The night was cold, and we had to cover our heads. A man on the platform told us that stations in France close by the midnight, and no one was allowed to stay on the platforms either. As we started walking towards the exit, the friendly station officials came towards us and asked if we had a train the morning, and then told we could stay in the waiting room of the station for the night, and that the station would otherwise be closed. What more, he even gave us some 40 minutes ‘to go get some sandwiches, have our dinner, and then pack off for sleep!’ We kept our bags in the waiting room, which just had some 4 benches for sitting, but a room sufficient for all of us, in our sleeping bags, and went out of the station. It seems to be a small town, but the visuals were very colourful outside. There was a statue in the large open space outside the station which was glowing with blue light. The road was narrow, with wide pavements as usual, and across the road was a bar, and a kebab shop, that was all we needed. The station and shops glow looked even more beautiful in the drizzle that had begun by then. We ordered kebab sandwiches, fries and coke to be packed. The nearby bar was playing some groovy music for the night, and people were enjoying the drinks outside on the pavement in the gentle showers. A man, who had probably got too high on the drinks, or who knows maybe just life, and was dancing merrily across the road, near the statue greeting everyone joyfully. Everyone would greet him with equal joy then! We took our stuff and came inside. I remembered seeing people waiting, sleeping on the stations in Varanasi and Delhi, and wondering what kind of people they must be, maybe poor. Who would have thought, that I’d be one of them, here in a sleepy little town of southern France!

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The light from the platform is really dim, and I need to have a good sleep.

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Feeling poor is definitely one of the changes that you feel in the first few days here. With the rupee falling lower each day, you just keep multiplying numbers in your head each time you pay those precious euros. As I walked towards the city centre, I kept checking prices in the showroom displays. A packet of lays started from one euro, a sub at subway started from 3.5 euros, the cheapest item at McDonalds was of 1.9 euros, and it was plain cheese burger. But then, France is one of the most costly countries even by European standards, so was I told. Seeing familiar brand names certainly gives you a comforting feeling, that of belonging to the global world. However, even better feelings were aroused by an Indian restaurant, and the Bata footwear shop. Somehow Bata has always had a very Indian feel about it. The city centre was buzzing with people all around. There is a fountain in between, with a statue on it and a number of restaurants mark the area. On the one side there is a theatre, and on the other side is the grand Opera building. These, along with a shopping mall provide one of the most beautiful sights of urban planning I had ever seen. There is an underground parking zone right below the city centre. The road ahead leads to the two main railway stations of the city – Lille Flanders, and Lille Europe. An old man sat on the roadside, playing the old fashioned harmonium which was probably last seen in a Raj Kapoor movie. The music was enjoyable though, and I end up putting a euro in his basket.

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The trains of Europe! Well, one can go on and on about them. No wonder Bollywood is so much charmed by them, that it keeps on churning Eurail romances from the iconic Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (Oh, writing the full name really feels good) to the dud Ishkq in Paris. That the train connectivity throughout Europe is very strong is well known, but what adds to the charm is the elegance and beauty of the trains themselves. Most of the trains have chair cars, as the intra-country distances are not as large as compared to those in our country. For comparatively longer journeys, there are night trains with coaches having sleeper berths. Each country has its own fleet of trains, which are all privately managed, and the design of the coaches also varies, extreme cleanliness and comfort being common across all. The French, as expected have the most elegant coaches. Many of the trains have two levels like the double decker buses of Mumbai, and have a separate coach which serves as a bar and restaurant. Many of the coaches in fact resemble (or I daresay better!) some of our airlines! Same applies to the railway stations. Besides obviously being spotlessly clean, most of them are an architectures dream. Another distinguishing feature of the stations across Europe would be the excessive usage of underground space. Instead of overhead bridges above the tracks, they have underpasses, and often the entire platform is underground, or raised!

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I start walking back at about 8:30, and it has just started to turn dark. With the start of night, life starts growing on the roads of Lille. Like the innumerable redis, gumtis and chai, paan shops on our roads, they have bar and brasserie (brewery). As the other shops close down by about 7, these open up, and the crowd starts accumulating. Infact this is the only time when you get to see some life, some crowd on streets.  As I take a turn, something slippery rubs under my foot and I find with disgust that it is dog shit. Now, that is something that hasn’t happened ever with me back home. (Okay, we are tolerant towards cow dung!) Cigarette butts, and now dog shit, hmm. (Smirk!) The park is almost deserted now. I take a route surrounded by trees and bushes, and am welcomed with a foul smell of a public urinal, which clearly it was not but was being used as apparently.

Well, at some level we all are the same I guess, just that with great development comes great responsibility.

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If you have to feel the real vibe of the country, countryside is the place to be. The first train I took here was for a mere 30 minutes, and the stop was a place called Tournai, in Belgium, on the French border. Surprisingly the train reached ten minutes late, and even the display boards were not digital, but the old number patch types, functioning and accurate nevertheless. There was a small chamber with a drape for an entry on the station, which was labelled as Photomaton. I went inside and found that it was a pay-and-get-your-own-photo machine, with options for size and other specifications. A girl in rugged clothes and carrying a baby was asking for money from everyone. The station building as usual was an architect’s delight, and opened up to roads on three sides. The big map on a board outside was all in French, so I took the road which went straight, and walked as far as I could remember the way back from. Europe has a very popular culture of eating in the open it seems, as there are chairs and tables in the open outside every restaurant. There were gardens, fountains, trees, canals and the town amidst all this. I sat down in a one park and tried to write something. There was a couple nearby getting cosy, and some kids playing nearby, oblivious of the surroundings. The silence in the atmosphere was just too seductive.

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If Tournai was a regular small town, Bruges, at an hour’s journey from Lille resembles a town from the last century. Stone paved roads, narrow lanes, and a beautiful network of canals throughout the town. The homes actually have doors and windows which open to canals, and boats are one of the most popular modes of travelling here. If all this was not enough, the rhythmic tick-tock sound of the horse cart provided a perfect music, and sound to the vintage soul of the town. It is also known for its breweries of Belgian beer, the Half-moon (De Halve Mann) being the most prominent. A tour of the same was an interesting experience. This cold little town is perhaps a small model of what Venice promises to be for the travelers seeking it as a stop!

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15th September 1700 hrs

The train is about to reach its destination – Barcelona (Barcelona Sants). It is passing through a number of small stations, without stopping and in the most stupid of thoughts, I feel bad for the stations. Though it could also be due to something else. I am happy to have made some new friends, to find some great company for travel. Though I had almost prepared myself for a solo backpacking trip, it is always good to have some people with you. I feel already knowing myself better. I am not as big a loner as I thought I was. Their friendly conversations and fights remind me of my own friends, the good times, and of course, college. As much as I am enjoying these experiences, of exploring a new continent, a new country, a new culture, there is a certain yearning, a certain craving inside to be back there as soon as possible. But it is natural I guess, as a great poet once said-

Dilon me apne betaabiyaan lekar chal rahe ho, to zinda ho tum…

Barcelona Sants– the train just stopped. I already feel alive.

The International Weekend: Europe Diaries 2

G**ndu, ‘M**d*rch*d, ‘Mera l***da Ch**s’ – the beautiful girl from the International club came and said to me. It took me a moment to decipher given the accent, and all I could say was, what! She giggled. (I am starting to like it, the French giggle)

It is midnight, I am sitting in the compact tent amidst a lot of trees – tall, dense and green, in the camp located in the outskirts of Lille. The mobile flashlight is not really ideal for writing, but there are times when you just can’t control the urge to get away from the crowd, be with just yourself and vent out your thoughts, especially if you have been with a lot of people throughout the day. I am at this camp organized by the International club of my exchange university. Though they charged a hefty sum of 50 euros, I decided to go for it, to have some interaction with the people from other countries. With time, I have realized that I am not really the most social person around and take my own time to know people and make friends. In the bus, I was mostly busy savoring the beautiful view of the French country side.  The roads were impeccably clean, painted with symbols, crossing each other at multiple points.

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After an hour of travel, during which we were divided into teams, we reached the camp site. The leader from the International club told us to pick up stuff (tents, food, drinks) from the bus, take them to the site, and form groups of 4 for sharing the tent. The only interaction till now was with a guy from Italy, who was sitting in the seat behind mine in the bus. As we started putting up tents, I remembered with a strong sense of déjà vu, our XLRI Adventure camp, which had laid the foundation of so many strong bonds. The tents here were much easier to set up though – just open from one side and they kind of jumped and set themselves up!

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This activity led to interaction with a number of guys – from Philippines, Mexico, Italy, and Lithuania among others. Interestingly, here too, girls and guys mostly occupied different tents.We met our team members then. My team had a girl from the USA, one from Germany, a guy from Philippines, one from France and one from Morocco. We introduced ourselves and discussed who really wanted to do bungee jumping, since the winning team was to get free passes for the same. We had to keep a team name too, and we came up with ‘Dream team’ after some discussion.

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The games started thereafter. They were mostly the fun types – duck crawl race, sack race. The one particularly funny was the one involving oranges. We had to put an orange between our neck and chest and transfer it to the next team mate without using hands. This obviously involved a lot of funny situations, since the oranges would often slide down the chest and then we had to bring it up. Of course, everyone did it sportingly, with jokes about how much they enjoyed the ‘oranges’. The teams had then to pose and give a funny and sexy picture of them.  Ideas were thrown around like guys showing their muscles and girls their b**bs, or everyone stripping naked, but eventually we settled on much milder cars and babes pose, with a gender twist. Guys trying to ooze oomph lying over the car while girls strutting their stuff (car). Meanwhile we had some good interaction in our team. But the initial bonding somehow was more between the geographically proximate groups – Asians, Europeans, Americans.  The next game was a quiz on the French culture, which was obviously mastered by the European people. Before I could tell my origin, most people could guess that I was from India. This obviously felt great. In fact I met 2 girls, who had gone to India on for exchange program, both in Mumbai , one of them being the girl who showered me with the hindi abuses. That was only bit of language she learnt there (and obviously, Namaste!). Even that felt good there though.

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I should save the phone battery, since there are still some 20 hours before I reach back to my place. Also my legs hurt from all the games, and my body craves for some sleep now.

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Thank God, I had these two sheets of paper in my pocket. Though the purpose for which they were there is not even distantly as romantic as writing this on a wooden table and chair amidst tall trees on the side of a lake. For the morning chores, I saw everyone taking with them their paper roll, which I didn’t have. So I tore these two sheets of paper from the IESEG notepad  and took with me. But there was a roll in there already. So these sheets are being put to some better use. Anyway, this amusement park is at best, only amusing and nothing more than that.

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Then we had another game in which one had to run to a point, go round about it 15 times, and then run back. It sounded simple, but running after 15 rounds just became impossible with all sense of direction lost, and I ended up with bruised knees and elbows. The last game was perhaps the most awaited one – the beer race – drinking your beer the fastest. Anyway, almost everyone was craving for alcohol, as the club people had said no alcohol before 7 : 30. Though it wasn’t really followed, and by the time it was 5, beer was flowing freely – they had unlimited supply of it. Most discussions revolved round it. People are generally the same everywhere, maybe one layer beneath the exterior, especially the guys. Discussions about which girl is the hottest (and err…who has the hottest) started pretty soon. Everyone spoke English in a different accent, and it took some time initially to register. But things are really a bit different in India, this was evident. Most of the table discussions revolved around beer, hangovers, beer games, girlfriends, and of course every other word in the conversation being the f word.( Though that is becoming the scene in India too, with different versions of the word)

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Yeah, so the game was to finish 8 glasses of beer by a team of 4 persons, sequentially – 2 glasses per person one after the other. I did not register. But after a few rounds, a girl who looked Chinese came and requested to participate as their team needed one participant. I told her I was no good at drinking beer so they would lose. But she insisted, that it was just for fun, so I relented. It tasted horrible. So bad that I just paused a breath, and finished the glasses in one sip, and we won! She got crazily happy, and me, just surprised!

The girl was from Hong Kong, as I found out in later conversations. Her name I couldn’t pronounce correctly. She was one of those – giggling, talking, chirpy types pausing only when she couldn’t remember the English words for what she wanted to say. She is here for year, and came only a week ago. Geography certainly affects culture. Both of us being Asians, we found a lot of common grounds to talk. Dinner was arranged at 7:30, while it was still sunny and we both wondered how late it became dark here, almost by 9 unlike in our countries. They had beef for dinner which I didn’t have( tried pork, couldn’t finish that either due to stomach ache though it could be due to the beer also), and it took a lot of effort to explain to her why I didn’t have beef. More so since I myself am not convinced by the logic. I believe killing a chicken is equally wrong as killing a cow. Turning veg has been my long held desire, but I just cannot resist the tempting smell and sight of chicken. Her friends understood, citing instances that in their country also some people did not eat cows. She also missed her home, her food – rice, noodles and wondered how the French ate bread all the time!

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I looked for washroom, and was shown the open space by a guy. Wow, this felt like home. Though the next morning, I found there was a washroom around.

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After dinner, there was this competition, which I really didn’t want to participate given the condition of my legs, but the leader entered my name forcibly and paired me with that girl. The game was, well, to do ramp walk and strike 3 sexy poses with the girl! She went giggly at the mention and said- we don’t really do sexy poses in my town, in her labored English. I empathized with her. But she wanted to do bungee jumping way too much to be inhibited and we went ahead. The first being a somewhat Bollywood dance, second being a free style where I just stood and she did the gig, and in third, getting a bit gutsy we pretended to kiss, while the crowd cheered, ‘real kiss!’ We didn’t win this one, though got sufficient applause. We talked for a while then, discussing the stereotypes- Jackie Chan (No, she wasn’t a fan and had not heard of the Myth or Mallika Sherawat) , Rice and noodles (she missed both of them), Chopsticks (Yes she used them even for eating rice and offered to start chopsticks lessons), Bollywood (She had seen 3 idiots, and said that Bollywood movies were becoming more and more popular), Indians eating with their hands ( I said, we also use spoons and forks now), French and smoking and so on.

There was a night club nearby and the entire camp went there at about 10. It was very cool, with hand-bands, bouncers et al. Drinks were on the house by the International club. After a few moments of inhibition, almost everyone let go off their hesitation, and I suddenly missed my XLRI nights strongly. There were counterparts of every kind of characters – the crazy drinking types, the shy type who’d take some time and then jump on the floor, the really shy types who wouldn’t dance, and the love birds who’d stick together. Since here almost everyone was new to each other, there wasn’t much of the sticking together part. One girl, Indian, from one of the well-known colleges of Delhi, got a bit too excited and started pulling the Italian guy towards her, sticking her mouth into his. The guy looked happily surprised. She then proceeded to rubbing herself on him (at the right places), and then doing certain animal poses. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one amazed at this, as the club people came with their camera and she happily obliged in those poses!

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The morning was lazy, with most people hungover. There was bread, beer, fruits for breakfast. After packing our tents we came to this nearby amusement park, which is more of a joke as the board says something like kids amusement park. There is a lake, boating  and the bungee jumping, which is a sham as it is not the real thing, but the one which we have outside every mall in India. There was arrangement for lunch in the restaurant. The ‘heavy’ lunch was of French fries, beef, and well what else but bread. I wish my mom and grandfather were here who have always accused me of eating too much bread. There certainly would not like the French.  ‘Anyone else who doesn’t eat ‘meat’?’ they asked when I told I couldn’t have beef, and got fish for us.

As I munched upon the French fries, I looked up to see the girl smiling on me with an ‘I-told-you-so’ look. I was casually eating the fries with my hands, while everyone else dealt with them with their knives and forks. Well, I never really disbelieved in the stereotypes.

Foreign : First Brush (Europe Diaries I)

Once again, I am sitting on a railway station, waiting for a train. Just that this time it is not Kanpur or Delhi, but a station called Lille Flanders. Yes, it is a great feeling- just to think of my location – Lille, a small city in the Northern France, in Europe. I can almost visualize a line moving from the congested lanes of Varanasi to these swanky roads of Lille, like in those Google maps. The train to Tournai (Begium) will arrive in a few minutes. Most people are into visiting the famous places and tourist spots and completing the ‘things to do before you die’ checklist, and I am no different. But what gives me real satisfaction is living at a place, being a part of its daily routine and trying to understand its systems and culture. That is what I am trying to do here, in these three months, or so would I like to believe. Add to it the country hopping times like these, and can almost hear the Illahi track (YJHD) playing in my mind! 

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As the flight had started losing altitude, I had started looking for the iconic structure towering through the clouds, but all I could fathom were some patterns of roads, buildings, fields and lights. Maybe the airport was located in extreme outskirts of the megacity. The flight landed with a thud and as it ran on the runway, a startling sight was that of the runway and public roads intermingled  casually. At places, vehicles passed under the runway, i.e. there were roads underneath the runway, and at places there were roads sideways at a lower level so that the wings of plane almost covered the vehicles. As we came out of the plane, a pleasant wave of cold air welcomed us to the Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris, France. The Eiffel tower was (and is) yet to be seen though. The airport had a delightfully good smell all around, and though it looked spectacular, our very own T3 of the New Delhi airport wouldn’t pale in comparison either.

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The train has left for Belgium, with me of course. I am in the Euro rail! Cheesy as it might be, it suddenly reminds me all DDLJ, the iconic scene, and so many Bollywood romances based in Europe and the trains. The view outside is beautiful, with organized patterns of fields, trees, villages and farms. I get to see some cows after a long time.

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We rushed to the interconnected metro station after collecting our baggage, as the last train towards our destination was in a few minutes. It took us a few more minutes to understand the ticketing system. We had to buy the tickets for 9 euros per person, despite having the Eurail global pass. (It comes with a lots of strings attached, we realize now) After some inquiries from a few strangers (including a really hot and pretty girl, who giggled after answering, only adding to the effect) we were at the platform. Again, the station was very impressive and spread across multiple levels.  With each step, my respect for and pride on the Delhi Metro only increased, as in no way was it  any lesser. The train was a few minutes late (so it is not just us Indians, I thought almost with a smirk). The platform looked old and worn, nevertheless clean. The train did not look old though, and had a very classy look, on the exterior as well as interior. It had 2 floors and we went on the upper one. There were seating arrangements, and though I did get a window seat, there was only darkness to be seen through the glass. Below my seat were some leftovers of cookies and chocolates on the floor, probably by the previous occupants (again the smirk).

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This park in Tournai is really a good place to write, with pigeons, fountain, and trees all around. I have no intention of visiting the famous places of this city today, as I will have enough time for that. (also because of the Eurail pass which made the travel free) Today was just a manifestation of the desire to set feet in another country, so Belgium. The chocolates can wait. 

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After an hour, we were on the station called ‘Lille Europe’. At first sight, it reminded me somehow of Platform 9 ¾ , with all its European style signboards. We walked out to a sprawling sight of a few tall buildings (Hotel Novotel being a familiar name), and roads with lots of painted arrows and symbols, and wide pavements. We went to the taxi stand and joined the queue, which was more of a mutual understanding than an actual line. It was 11:30 in the night and quite cold, so we had to put on a sweater. We decided to take cabs since there was too much luggage. After the first one left, we had to wait for long as many cabs refused to take that number of bags, even after our assurance that we would fit them all. Another issue was the language barrier. They hardly knew English, so we conversed in words and phrases instead of sentences. Finally, when we reached our place, the meter showed and alarmingly high reading of 22 euros, for each cab, which is about 3740 INR. Pricey times ahead, we were warned!

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The house was on a very neat road with a number of homes in the lane, ours being the last one, near the traffic light. The door had a numeric pad and opened with a code which our landlady ‘Maya’ had told us. The flat has a room with high ceiling and lights hanging from above, living room, kitchen, washroom and a garden with a little swing. There are also a number of fireplaces, though not in use in the current weather. A number of mirrors around also add up to the charm.

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I must have walked about 10 kms today, in the 3 hours of stroll along the Belgian countryside, with the soulful tracks of Madras Café and Udaan for company. The slow train seems really slow now. But the couple in the next seat surely doesn’t seem to mind the speed, given they are in no hurry to get off each other’s mouths.

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A travel of about 12 hours had made us jet lagged enough to drop asleep, but not without calling home. Though the sleepy voice on the phone reminded me that it must be 4 in the morning there. Funnily, it brought to my mind the title of a t.v. soap, which I could never really understand before – Des Me Nikla Hoga Chand!

Well, Pardes it is, for now. The dials and needles must adjust themselves,

A Journey to the Himachal


As the sunrays opened my eyes, I pulled open the curtains to see through the window of our bus. A river stream flowing alongside the road, peaks of white snow clad mountains forming a background in the sky and a few pahadi women selling deep red cherries and strawberries,t this was the first visual of the Himachal I had ,and is going to stay with me forever, no doubts.

Our trip to the state of Himalayas had just started. ‘Our’ here includes Sudeep Gupta, Shashank Sahu and Rajat Batra apart from me. After a gruesome fortnight of BITS examinations and Pilani heat, we owed it to ourselves; we had to give ourselves this pleasure! Though the trip was basically meant for those of us who were spending there last days together in college, but all those who ended up being a part are very much going to be together for another semester. We left Pilani on 14th night and after brief but full of warmth stays at Ambala and Chandigarh(homes of Rajat and Arpit Sardana,who incidently was not a part of our trip despite our  persuasion, for reasons undisclosed) boarded our bus to Manali to reach there on 16th May.

Day 1

After booking the least costly hotel we could find and unloading our stuff we started our day.  Manali is , to be precise, very picturesque. Every little detail about the hill stations, which one might have read in a book or observed in a movie, comes to life here. As we entered the town, a large number of sheep were crowding up the road and we had to make our way through them. Just short of a pretty lass herding them from being a scene out of the bollywood’s ultimate hill station! The deodar trees, with their typically shaped leaves, houses with  hut like sloped roofs , river flowing along the roads with its rapids and whitewaters were quite a sight! We went to  Van Vihar- an enclosure of beautiful forests and Beas river , Hidimba Temple ( Hidimba  mothered  Ghatotkach with Bheem, one of the five Pandavas in the Mahabharat) which was again amidst beautiful forest and crowded a lot due to some local fair, and also saw a Buddhist Monastery near our Hotel. The most exciting part of the day awaited us in Kullu where we did river rafting on the wild waves of Beas. Though the claims of the agent of giving us a Mountain Dew ad like experience appeared far fetched, nevertheless it was thrilling to float on the river along with the waves, to go wherever the water takes us, apart from getting drenched in the ice cold water in that already cold environment! Believe me, it really feels good to be in the river surrounded on all sides by nature, unabridged, in its pristine form.

The night life is beautiful in Manali. We wandered around the market and streets. The market here is pretty good. You can find almost all the major brands and delicious food. What more, it even houses a multiplex and a disco , but only for couples! We also stumbled upon the  dark and mysterious looking tattoo studio aptly named Vodoo, where Mr. Batra got a scorpio  on his biceps! (Rs. 250 , temporary, which, later, to much of his dismay and our chuckle, we understood  meant a week!). Manali is one of the favorite honeymoon spots for the Indian new weds, we had heard, but seeing the crowd and lack of secluded spaces, its certainly not recommendable as one! One of the most enchanting sights on all the hill stations is that of looking at the surrounding mountains and innumerable dots of light illuminating them. It appears as if the sky has been lit up by the Gods. Equally mesmerizing is the view of a valley glittering with lights, which appears like a river of lights.  …Call them the wonders of the Human mind!

The Himachals- Day 2

17th May, arguably, was the best day of our outing, and certainly one of the most enjoyable ever. Call it The White magic. Magic it was, indeed, the beauty of snow clad Rohtang.

We booked an Indica to go to Rohtang, situated about 30 kms uphill from Manali. We all had heard that if there was a chance to see snow in summer, it was there. So we departed with hope. And as we rose higher and higher, the whiter it became. (Colour of the mountains, that is). The way was beautiful beyond our imagination, complete with really deep waterfalls, apple trees, lush green hilly pastures, and sheep all over them. As our destination neared, we were told we would need stronger protection from cold up there. So we rented the coats and boots, with a very impressive display of the bargaining skills by Sudeep!

And phew! As I was taking a photo, something cold touched my hand, and for the first time in my life I witnessed a snowfall. In a few seconds, it was snow all over. It was beautiful to witness. You see it in the movies and else, but it is really a delightful visual to be a part of. We couldn’t stop ourselves from stopping right there and let the white powder spread on our heads. Rohtang was as we’d imagined it, and more. I always used to dream about a place where there would be whiteness all around, whichever direction I looked. This was it! Infact, it was so white that it took a while for our eyes to adjust. There was a large level ground of snow to ski on, a mountain of snow to climb on, the heaps of snow to make snow-mans of, to make and throw snow-balls at each other. We did it all, though sucked big time at skiing and made a fool of ourselves by falling again and again and crying for help. We climbed on the snow mountain and tried to roll down from the top, as they do in the movies ( ofcourse, sans a lady!) but after an hour of fun, we had finally begun to realize how cold it was! And as the realization poured in, it was almost unbearable. The snow would enter our boots and accumulate in the clearance between them and our legs, and seconds later we couldn’t feel our feet. Our eyes were already moist and hands red. Standing on the top, I looked all round. There was no stopping the snow fall. Probably we are stuck in a snow storm, I thought. It seemed so heroic right there. I could just imagine innumerable Bollywood songs shot in these snowy lands, and how the lead players would play around happily in most glamorous( read scarce) of outfits, as if no amount of cold could bother them. The reel and the real! Feasting on a maggi and an omelet  in that freezing cold seemed ecstasy. The tradition of getting a photo on the yak also wasn’t left out.( though it was about to turn into much more as Rajat almost hit the mammal between its legs with his skiing shoes!) Finally ,when we couldn’t any more bear the cold, we left. And another much awaited visual was observed in the form of cars covered with snow. Before we got in and warmed ourselves, we brushed off the snow from all over the vehicle! Memorable!

We surely had enough for the day, and a few sites to be seen on the way back were conveniently skipped. Next moment we found ourselves on the bus to Dharmshala, our next destination!